Sew What? No Problem, Costumer Nola Yergen Can Make Anything
Story by Doug Carroll
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The sign on the inside of the door to Nola Yergen’s costume workshop poses an important question to those who are exiting: “IS THE IRON OFF?”
Perhaps that’s because the iron is rarely off. And the same applies to Yergen, whose space on the second floor of the Media Arts building on the GCU campus is humming with activity these days as opening night of another Ethington Theatre production approaches.
Volunteers come and go amid a breezy banter that disguises the deadline pressure to have everything ready for “Comedy on the Bridge” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the one-act operas that will begin a two-weekend run on Friday, Oct. 12.
At the same time, Yergen and her crew are working on — of all things — the costumes for a stunt show for an Indonesian amusement park. Such is the connectivity of her small world, and it all began in 1998 when she answered a newspaper ad for a costume designer in GCU’s Theatre Department.
The low pay didn’t bother Yergen, who wasn’t enjoying a job as a quality-control engineer. Although she had studied history at the University of Tennessee, costuming was an avid hobby. She was a regular at sci-fi conventions, dressing up and winning awards.
“It seemed only natural to do this in the real world,” she says.
Things went well at GCU for eight years, with Yergen winning ariZoni Awards for her costumes for “Little Women” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” Then, amid financial struggles, the University discontinued the theatre program and divested itself of the wardrobe she had created.
Yergen used the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in theatre arts from Long Beach State and take paid internships with the TV shows “Scrubs” and “Ghost Whisperer.” When GCU brought back theatre in 2010 as part of a newly formed College of Fine Arts and Production, she was ready to return as well.
Word is getting around in Arizona’s theatre community that GCU is back. With Dean Claude Pensis’ expert direction and lighting, Assistant Dean Bill Symington’s clever staging and Yergen’s brilliant costuming, productions at Ethington have never looked better. A third ariZoni came Yergen’s way for her work on “The Pirates of Penzance,” the rollicking musical that launched the first season of the new era in September 2010.
Here’s an example of the kind of detail she brings to her job. Last season’s musical “The Boy Friend,” set in the 1920s, included a huge costume-ball scene. Yergen did her homework, making sure to dress the actors in what people might have chosen to wear to such an occasion, based on events of the time: the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the flight of Charles Lindbergh and others.
It was a subtle touch, but it said everything about the way she works.
“She understands that the concept (of a show) is the driving force,” Symington says. “It’s about characters, not clothing. She probably understands the play better than anyone. The costume helps the actor inhabit the character. And from the audience’s perspective, it reinforces everything about the character.”
Virtually every costume for a show is made from scratch — and that’s highly unusual, according to GCU junior Deanna Zaccaria, who helps in the workshop for about 15 hours a week.
“Nola’s reputation is amazing, and it’s for the detailed work she does,” says Zaccaria, one of about a half-dozen regular volunteers, most of whom start by needing to be taught to sew by Yergen or her mother, Jean Palmer. Yergen also has a part-time employee in Sarah Levinson and a student worker in Jennifer Arner.
“Everything is handcrafted,” Zaccaria says. “Other (theatre groups) will do alterations on costumes they’ve ordered, rather than create things.”
That originality is what you get with Yergen, 45, who can make virtually anything for the stage or screen, including a dress made of Doritos chips for a Super Bowl commercial. (Liquid latex held it together, she says.)
On the rare occasions when she can’t make it, she can make a deal for it. The huge head for the Beast character in the upcoming “Beauty and the Beast” was created by a microbiologist friend in trade for Yergen’s design of Halloween costumes for a rock band.
“Because I do a variety of things,” Yergen says, “it’s a good opportunity for students. When I learn to do something, then I teach others.
“Being more well-rounded is only helpful (to students). I really push that. When you learn how to do everything, that makes you indispensable.”
The one-act operas “Comedy on the Bridge” and “Beauty and the Beast” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 12 and 13 and Oct. 19 and 20. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. on Oct. 14 and 21. For tickets, call the Ethington Theatre box office at 602.639.8880.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].